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Health inspections: Food safety a priority

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Having a "reality TV" chef call the kitchen at a Port Hadlock restaurant "disgusting," multiple times, caught the attention of staff at Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH).

The county employees are tasked with monitoring food safety at any business or entity that serves food, from restaurants to school lunchrooms to the county jail.

Each food service establishment is routinely inspected twice a year; low-risk establishments are routinely inspected once a year if there is a good performance history. Inspections assess points in red (high risk) and blue (low risk) criteria based on the chance for food-borne illness.

Something like dirty floors, walls and ceilings would amount to a "blue" two-point penalty, while lack of employee hand washing stations, for example, is a "red" violation worth 25 points, noted Jared Keefer, director of the county's Environmental Health and Water Quality operations. Any inspection that hits 35 "red" points means that the establishment fails the inspection and draws an automatic re-inspection.

HEALTH FACTS

When it comes to the recent attention on Zoogs Caveman Cookin in Port Hadlock, subject of the Food Network's "Restaurant Impossible" program that aired Feb. 4, here are two health department facts:

• There have been no customer complaints about food-related sickness at Zoogs, according to JCPH records. The JCPH responds to every public complaint regarding something like food poisoning, which generally occurs within 24 to 72 hours of a person dining.

“Studies show that one is much more likely to get a food-borne illnesses from a private residence than out of a restaurant,” Keefer noted.

• The only restaurant subject to emergency closure in 2014 on a health violation was Zoogs – but it was not for anything people may have seen on the Reality TV show. A complaint was made to JCPH last July that Zoogs was operating without hot water, and that prompted an inspection July 29 where that proved to be true. The lack of hot water for sanitary facilities and hand washing is an automatic closure, Keefer said. The broken water heater was replaced and the restaurant was reopened July 30.

Overall, about 10 different food service businesses scored poor enough in 2014 to merit a prompt re-inspection to ensure corrective action was taken, said Mina Kwansa, the JCPH environmental health specialist who conducts inspections. Zoogs was one of those businesses.

“People take pride in their food. It reflects on them and you have a responsibility to your customers,” Kwansa said.

The top four basic rules of food handling, things that score "red" points, deal with this sequence of events: Cook, chill, separate and wash hands, Keefer noted.

Establishments are closed immediately for these imminent health hazards: lack of water, lack of hot water, sewage backup and lack of electrical power. Other problems revealed on inspection must be fixed immediately, and some must be done within 30 days.

INSPECTION PROCESS

JCPH typically inspects food service operations twice a year, unannounced. Plus, inspections (and follow-ups) may be made based on complaints or poor performance. If a restaurant must be inspected more than twice a year, the establishment must pay a re-inspection fee.

“Management of a restaurant is day to day and we’re there once every five or six months,” Porto said.

Routine inspections take up to two hours, and are a “snapshot” in time, Keefer noted. “Red” items must be fixed while the inspector is on site, or the restaurant can be closed.

Another factor with inspections is a menu's complexity. A cook-and-serve place has less steps than a place that cooks, holds food cold, and then reheats and serves.

A restaurant does need JCPH permission to change the menu when it involves going from low-risk, pre-packaged meals to cooking hamburgers, for example. A restaurant that adds more seating, for example, also needs pre-approval, which is tied to food storage or sewage capacity.

INSPECTING ZOOGS

Public records obtained by the Leader indicate Zoogs was visited five times in 2014. A routine inspection on April 16, 2014 resulted in 14 points, with the “red” for no consumer advisory posted on the lunch menu regarding the health danger when eating raw or uncooked foods. There were “blue” hits for single-use and single-service articles not property stored (must be displayed handle-out), nonfood contact surfaces not maintained and clean, and toilet facilities not property constructed, supplied or cleaned.

The inspector’s notes include, “shelves, floor at cook’s line needs to be thoroughly cleaned,” and “cutting board must be cleaned immediately, [when] used to cut BBQ ribs or at least must be moved to dirty dishes area.”

Based on a complaint, an inspection was made May 28. The complaint about seeing mouse droppings was proven unfounded; the items seen were flower seeds.

An inspection was made July 29 regarding lack of hot water (see above) with a score of 35; a follow-up on July 30, with the water heater replaced, registered no violations.

A routine inspection was made Nov. 5 [the Food Network chef was on-site Nov. 16-18], and 5 points were assessed with “red” violations for three food worker cards not being current (a common item for many, many restaurants), new food workers not trained. “Blue” points were for wiping cloths not properly used or stored, 5 points (sanitizing solution is best prepared fresh every two to three hours) and food contact surfaces not maintained, cleaned or sanitized, also 5 points.

The inspector’s hand-written notes indicate the door to the kitchen's ice machine was broken; it had been broken about two weeks, Kwansa was told. “Equipment must be in good repair at all times. Proprietor plans to replace the ice machine or the door within a week. Black plastic bag used to cover opening of ice machine until door is replaced," she wrote in the inspection.

During the “Restaurant Impossible” episode, there were two electric fans in the kitchen, both of which appeared to be dirty; one was blowing near the ice machine, which still had a broken door.

“Those fans were not there when I inspected,” Kwansa said. “If [a fan would have been near the ice machine] I would ask them to clean or remove it."

The inspection also noted the “good cold holding and hot holding temperatures” of meat and other food items, an improvement over a 2013 inspection. For example, Kwansa said that fresh, hot food needs to be placed in a metal hotel pan inside the cooler, uncovered, so it cools properly and once it reaches the proper cold temperature, then it can be covered for cold storage.

KITCHEN RANGE HOODS

In terms of the greasy range hood highlighted on the TV show, the JCPH inspector does not remove filters to investigate up the hood for the grease trap. Kitchen range hoods must be maintained at least every six months, according to state fire codes. Range hoods are to be inspected by the fire department and sewage traps are to be inspected by the public health's sanitary sewer staff. In November, an inspection sticker indicated the range hood had been maintained about four months prior.

“What we saw [on TV] tells a different story,” Kwansa said of the range hood.

Holly Pritchett, manager at Zoogs, told the Leader that she believes the business hired to clean the range hoods did not do an adequate job.

“The expectation by fire marshals is that grease accumulation does not occur,” Keefer noted.

That said, a restaurant like Zoogs does have a greasy menu, so it is natural that grease buildup occurs, and more frequent cleaning would be needed.

“It’s up to the establishment owner and management to pay attention,” said Susan Porto, JCPH environmental health specialist, inspector Kwansa's supervisor.

East Jefferson Fire Rescue's goal is to conduct restaurant "life safety" inspections annually, said Brian Tracer, assistant chief. A business is responsible for providing their own kitchen range hood cleaners.

Chief Tracer's predecessor, assistant Chief Bob Low, and Frank Benskin of the county's Department of Community Development, inspected the premises in 2013 during the time when the restaurant was changing hands, according to Bill Beezley, EJFR public information officer. "At the time, several issues were identified and corrective action was recommended."

Tracer and DCD staff (a show producer had previously contacted the county and confirmed that a building permit was not necessary) conducted a walk-through during filming of "Restaurant Impossible" to verify that the filming process and overall conditions were appropriate. "At the time, they saw that the prior corrective issues hadn't been addressed, so they discussed them again," Beezley told the Leader.

During a re-inspection on July 9, 2013, records show that Zoogs was dinged 28 points for "red" violations of food worker cards not current, raw meats not below or away from ready to eat food, improper cold holding temperatures (over 45 degrees), and a "blue" violation for improper thawing methods used.

WHAT'S ON TV

In terms of the kitchen shown on "Restaurant Impossible," that coupled with the inspection reports do indicate an ongoing issue with cleanliness, Porto noted. Contributing factors would include an old building with older equipment.

“Some of the things that were observed on the show do not necessarily contribute toward food-borne illness,” Porto said.

For example, the food debris, and what appeared to be an old menu, inside the lower portion of a metal cabinet that was not used for any restaurant purpose, would not amount to a food safety penalty because that area – as the restaurant staff noted on the TV program – is not used for food storage or food handling. However, the expectation is that an establishment would clean this sort of debris at the end of each day or during a slow time of day.

PUBLIC COMPLAINTS

The food safety scores of any place that sells food products are available to the public at the JCPH website. Anyone seeking more details, such as the inspector's notes, simply needs to file a public records request and that detail would be provided, Keefer said.

"We encourage the public to see for themselves," Keefer noted.

Jefferson County Public Health welcomes complaints, which are confidential but not anonymous. A name and contact information is required for staff follow-up. Complaints may be made in person to the offices at 615 Sheridan St. in Castle Hill Center in Port Townsend, via email to

mkwansa@cojefferson.wa.us or by phone 385-9444.

The JCPH staff encourages restaurant customers to let them know if they believe something needs to be inspected.

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